Raising Ants in the Midwest

by Iliana Regan

Can ants be farm raised for consumption? Inspired by foreign culinary exploits, and in case of a possible apocalypse, Iliana Regan of Elizabeth and Bunny, the Micro Bakery, and Wunder Pop, tackles the question. In a series of journal entries she shares her close encounters with ants in the Midwest, from the dry pantry floor and the Michigan terroir to a basil seed filled ant farm and ant sprinkled dishes.  

Friday July 19th, 2013
We had an ant “problem” at Elizabeth. I walked into our dry pantry and there was my dishwasher – Tea Pot, we call him – standing with his arm stretched out and finger pointed at a small pile of ants on the floor. I pinched one between my thumb and index finger and opened wide.

“Chef, don’t!” he said.

“People eat them at some restaurants, you know. Great restaurants, and little hole in the wall places,” I told him. “I want to know what they taste like.”

It was a little lemony with a touch of spice.

Saturday May 24th, 2014
When you are in the Midwest you can watch the sun rise or set over Lake Michigan, depending on which side you’re on. Most days of the year I’ll be on the side facing the sunrise, but really, I’m at my happiest when I’m on the other side watching the sunset. It means I’m in the woods that I love.

I took a Saturday off, which I’ve hardly ever done without closing the restaurant. I spent a week away from preparing for a hyper-local, 100% gathered menu that I was going to host for twelve guests. I came to this place on the other side of Lake Michigan – which to me is Michigan – and went into the woods.

I spent all day gathering wild chives, cattails, basswood leaves, wild mint, yarrow, spruce tips, sorrel and other sweet grasses. I had a small grill outside my cabin and on it I roasted a whole rabbit I had brought along. I used sheep sorrel, cattail shoots, and a few wild chives mixed with a little olive oil and salt from the cabin’s cabinets as a relish. The meat was tender and juicy. I had brined it a few days beforehand and the sugars caramelized over the grill. It was delicious.

We, my friend and I, had dinner at a picnic table perched right at the top of the dunes beyond the shoreline, under the oak trees. The sun turned that bright fiery and pink color. For once, I wasn’t thinking that it was Saturday. I wasn’t thinking that the kids were plugging away at the restaurant, partly resenting me for not being there and partly trying to establish themselves as being fine without me. And I didn’t give a fuck.

When I was done with dinner I soaked in the environment whilst sitting in the grass at the top of the hill. I couldn’t help – I never can – but to scan the terroir for edible plants. That’s when I saw a single line of ants marching across the sand under a canopy of violets and grass. They were more plump and black than the ones crawling around the floor of the restaurant. I picked one up.

“Don’t eat that,” my friend said. How can people just tell by my face that I’m about to eat something?

So I ate it, and it was good. “A little lemony,” was all I said.

Why are people so against eating ants? They certainly wouldn’t be against it if this were an apocalypse.

“It’s not,” my friend said sternly.

“Well don’t come to me when you are starving and don’t have a clue about what to eat.”

Saturday August 23rd, 2014
I did it again. I left a few days ago, on a Thursday, and will return on Wednesday. I’m in Denmark for the MAD Symposium.

Every once in a while dreams become reality and it’s nothing short of amazing. When I was thumbing through the noma cookbook four years ago I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined I’d now be sitting at the restaurant about to have lunch. There was that page with the black against the white, ants in a mound of yogurt. Ants? I remember that thought, but it wasn’t in disbelief, disgust, or shock. The question mark was more like an exclamation mark, I suppose.

Ants? Of course!

Those fat black ants that crawled in dozens over the rows of my mother’s peony shrubs, that as a child I flicked off while making bouquets. Or as an adult, tending to my borage flowers, brushing them away. Why didn’t I ever think to eat one?

So there I was, five courses in to my meal, wondering if there would be ants. The sixth course arrived, and there they were on beef tartare. My girlfriend was shocked, but I was looking forward to this. They tasted just as I had read they would, like lemon. This perfect little citrus burst behind the crunch of… exoskeleton! It’s fine. I reminded myself of all the times I’d had soft shell crab. No difference.

Sunday, February 15th, 2015
I’m determined to put ants on our menu. As it’s the middle of winter in Chicago, they’re not easy to find. So I built a little ant sand farm between two different sized mason jars.

Amazon sells everything. I found 25 live ants that could arrive tube-shipped in 3-5 days.

I opened the tube and dropped them in. They seemed a bit cold, but after a few minutes they were crawling and climbing. I added a sliver of carrot and a few drops of sugar water.

Saturday, February 21st, 2015
When you have a small 20-seat restaurant, you have to do a lot of the work yourself. Elizabeth is too small to hire a PR team, social media people, bookkeepers, and so on. So I do it. One of my favorite things is having last minute inspiration, designing a plate and then photographing it in the daylight.

Our ants didn’t live too long, so I wanted to create a dish with these freshly deceased ants.

We had some polished marrowbones and smoked marrow. I had fermented romaine on hand, as well as house made cheese and seeded rye bread. I arranged the ingredients on a plate. I gently warmed the marrow and placed it back in the bones, shredded romaine over the top and shaved a bit of black truffle. I toasted the bread, placed a quenelle of fresh cheese on the plate and topped it off with a sprinkle of ants.

We tried it – and liked it – but it still needed work. The smoke from the marrow was too overpowering for the delicate ant flavor I remembered from Copenhagen.

ants + marrow + ...
Ants with marrow and cheese

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015
I went out to our garden plot. In Chicago in April, when crocuses are determinedly pushing up from the semi frozen soil, it can still snow. Particularly on this date. I know because on April 14th, 1963 my oldest sister was born and my father recalls that it snowed that year.

I went looking for ants. Our garden was quite lifeless but for a few little ants crawling next to a stone. Some people had already started work in their garden spaces, but I was a little behind for the year. I was certain we’d get more frost.

I collected the ants and put them in a jar. We took a few photos and videos, but they were too tiny to appreciate. You’d really have to eat a lot of them to get the full flavor.

I scraped the garden ant idea for a bit and decided to try another farm.

Friday, April 24th, 2015
I got an ant farm. The living quarters are very similar to something we would make in our kitchen. It’s a mixture of high and low gellan with a bit of sugar and water. There’s enough sugar and water in the mixture so there is no need to feed them. We pushed basil seeds into it and dropped the ants in. It took about two weeks for them to start tunneling and doing their thing, but this seemed like a great habitat for them to thrive in.

This is going to work.

The next thing we needed to do was to find those plump delicious ants and gather a queen to have a more sustainable environment.

Sunday, May 24th, 2015
I found them.

The house where I spent my childhood has a row out front of peony bushes. When the peonies were full and bloomed I put them into a vase for my mom. But first she would have me shake them over the sink to get the big fat ants off.

I was recently at my father’s house. No longer the house I grew up in but at times just as enchanting. There are plenty of flower bushes there. I looked around the cobblestones in the garden and among the mulch piles and found tons of the little guys. My nephew and I collected a few. He was eager to try them. He liked them. My sisters, not so much. But they agreed that if there was an apocalypse they’d make sure they were in my camp.

ants in nephews hand
Ants in my nephew’s hand

Tuesday, May 25th, 2015
Opening a second restaurant with separate hours from my first is crazy work. I wondered if I would have enough time to get a farm together all the ants I’d need to fulfill our summer menu.

Today I did a little R&D for our Fall Menu, which is going to be based around Mother Goose and Grimm’s Fairy Tale themes. Why not? Most fairy tales either begin or end in the woods. Very fitting.

I cured foie gras and set it in a skull shaped mold. I blended some sugars and baked them with the ants and flowers. From our social media outlets it seemed like people had enthusiastic feedback.

foie gras and ants
Foie gras and ants

Sunday, July 5th, 2015
The paperwork needed to finish up the licensing process for our bakery is still in zoning, so it looks like we may have some more time. I hired the staff back in May when we were supposed to open. I’m doing my best to find jobs for them around Elizabeth. They’ve been practicing our recipes for the bakery, prepping, doing all sorts of jobs I can find like weeding our garden.

Today I took them to the Jasper Pulaski woods to collect elderflower, milkweed flowers, stinging nettles, wood sorrel, sheep sorrel, hopniss, yarrow, sassafras, and hopefully some wood ants with a big fat queen.

We didn’t end up finding the queen we wanted. Though I do have hope we will find it there at some point.

Tomorrow they will paint Elizabeth’s dining room, strain our vinegars, make oil from our herbs, and whatever else I can think of to keep them busy.

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015
Back in my father’s garden.

Now we just have to find a queen. However, it seems they just roam with no specific home. I left bread out with bits of honey and followed them as they carried it around the garden, but still no home or hill, no rotted out tree stumps or tunnels…

Monday, July 27th, 2015
The bakery still hasn’t opened. I feel like I’ve spent all my mental energy, everyday, anticipating and waiting for this to happen.

I took the day off and for me that means going to the woods to gather. I took my dog, Bear, with me. It was our first foraging trip together. He loved it.

After, we went to my father’s house to collect nasturtium flowers from the garden. We make a sorbet out of the flowers for our current summer menu.

I’ve got the perfect idea for a course I’d like to make with the ants. The queen is still in question, but these worker ants are fat and everywhere. I’m thinking I might just have to collect them individually.

Friday, August 14th, 2015
There’s a place in Wisconsin called Camp Wandawega. It’s amazingly antiquated. I was called by an architectural firm, Studio Gang, to lead a few foraging expeditions there for their annual retreat. Those who attended my workshop received little pins of mushrooms to place on their shirt or hat or shorts. I was concerned because today the woods were dry. Mushrooms were either inedible or full of bugs.

Anxious for their next pin, I lead the attendees and pointed out wood sorrel, sumac, pokeweed and other things that, had the season been right, we might’ve be able to gather more of. People liked the citrus burst of the wood sorrel and everyone was so willing to pop whatever they could onto their tongue. Other than those few things it was uneventful. I think people have very romanticized notions of foraging. That, or on the other end of the spectrum, they are skeptical about it all. I think everyone was expecting to walk from the woods with bags and baskets full of edibles.

I knew going into this adventure I’d better prepare for a lack of consumables, so on the way in I gathered some milkweed pods as a go-to. I love them. Fried they are like this perfect chili relleno, so cheesy from the silk and seed without any cheese. It’s always so surprising for people.

Today was exceptional. A happy accident! I’ve found the wonderful, fat carpenter black ants on milkweed before, but never in such quantities as I did today. I put my hand against the plant and they willingly jumped on and began to climb up my arms. I swiftly brushed them into a plastic baggie and kept going, from plant to plant. Here might be the answer, I thought. Maybe I’m not going to find the queen and be able to farm raise these critters. Perhaps they are even more seasonal than I had imagined. Here they are on my favorite spring and summer plant. It’s right at the tail end of the milkweed’s flowering season, just as the pods begin to emerge.

They’ve been right here the whole time.

I took them back to camp and found that if I ran water off them they would temporarily immobilize. I’m certain that immobilization was a result of drowning. However, that made them easy to strain and contained them so I could grab each one and give a little squish to ensure their death, yet not too hard so that all their little juices – which probably hold the flavor – would disappear.

I told the workshop attendees how had this time of year and this particular location been our camp for an apocalypse we’d better hope we were better hunters than gatherers and that in these tough times, we might resort to insects before we turn on each other. That got a laugh, which I was hoping for but not counting on. I suppose architects can have a dark side too. It’s not just chefs.

Then I told them how I’d had carpenter ants in Copenhagen and that they were lovely and lemony, and that these might be similar. As they chewed the ants between their front teeth, their eyebrows rose. They described the flavor of the ants as citrus and basil.
I felt like I’d accomplished something by introducing them to ants. They hadn’t expected it coming into the workshop, but they definitely left with a story to tell.

foraging workshop collection
Foraging workshop collection

Sunday, August 29th, 2015
Really needing to have a moment to see the sun set over the lake, I made one last trip to Michigan. I stopped along the way to gather all the milkweed plants I spotted, which was a lot. I’ve collected a good amount of ants, yet no queen. But I may have enough for a few weeks to introduce to some of our guests. I was unsuccessful at farm raising this particular species of ant, but what I think is even better is the moral. It’s a testament to nature, cycles, and seasonality of plant life and the species that thrive on those plants.

The ants might just have to be another one of these wonderful things like morel or matsutake. We have to wait for the right time of year, when the soil and weather aligns. We can’t raise them or grow them. They have to be gathered. I love that, though. Cycles of flora and fauna give me things to look forward to. I’m sure some out there can prove this wrong and farm raise the carpenter ants. Why not? Maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough. Maybe I’ve just been too exhausted from my 16-hour daily grind to be able to see, or wait them out long enough to find their home base. I don’t know.

But now, like for the places I like to gather and frog gig, I have spots where I get ants…